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Obama has a good record to brag about tonight, but people still hate the government

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In tonight's State of the Union address, Barack Obama is likely to try to argue loudly and proudly that life is pretty good in the United States of America. He'll have a lot of data on his side as he tries to make his case. The contemporary United States is not an ideal society or one without problems, but compared with where it was when Obama took office seven years ago a huge array of indicators have gotten better.

The bad news for the White House is that they are swimming against a brisk current as they try to sell this message. A president who got elected promising to transcend polarization and clean up Washington has accomplished neither, and he leaves in his wake a public that is profoundly disillusioned with the political process and instinctively suspicious of the idea that anything good comes out of it.

Republicans are unrelentingly hostile to Obama, as they have been from the beginning, while a significant faction of Democrats are lining up behind Bernie Sanders to clamor for more and further-reaching change than Obama's been able to deliver — and blaming a corrupt political process rather than Republican obstructionism for his shortcomings.

Data paints an increasingly rosy picture

The most recent jobs report, which showed the economy added more than 290,000 new jobs in December, is fuel for the White House's optimistic fire, but Obama officials are looking to paint a broader bright picture.

The president's economic advisers have developed an increasing level of confidence in the state of the economy based in part on some indicators too wonky for a speech but in part on some big bold statistics that we can expect to hear about. The 70 consecutive months of private sector job creation is a record; 2015 and 2014 were the second-best and best years of 21st-century job creation. Nominal wage growth remains anemic, but thanks to low energy prices inflation-adjusted wage growth was actually pretty solid last year.

With Europe still floundering in a near-depression state, and China's once awe-inspiring growth model seemingly in a shambles, the American economy at the beginning of 2016 is genuinely once again the envy of the world.

It's morning in America.

Beyond the raw economic data, there's a range of social indicators the president can point to. The share of the American population that lacks health insurance has hit record lows. School kids in every state are doing better than they did a decade ago. Teen pregnancy is at an all-time low. People are hotly disputing whether crime will be higher in 2015 or in 2014 when all the data is in, but there's broad agreement that crime in the mid-aughts is at its lowest level in a couple of generations.

People are angry about a broken political system

Obama's problem in using this data to take a victory lap is that normally a president likes to project a positive attitude when he knows the public already agrees with him.

Depending on how pollsters ask the question, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the public says the country is currently on the wrong track. Conservatives, of course, don't much care for Obama, and that colors their overall perception of the state of the country.

But Obama's rosy view also faces a significant challenge on the left. Something like 30 to 40 percent of Democrats say they're planning to vote for Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton, a group that, based on what we know of the demographics of Sandersism, probably doesn't include much in the way of African Americans outraged about police violence or Latinos worried about the lack of concrete progress on immigration issues.


Pew survey data shows that beyond the economic fundamentals, the public is massively disgruntled with the political process. Republicans are more disgruntled than Democrats, but huge minorities of Democrats say they see the government as needing major reform and almost always being wasteful and inefficient. Most Republicans think their side is mostly losing in the political process, and most Democrats also think their side is mostly losing in the political process.

Analogies between Sanders and Donald Trump are often facile and misleading, but one genuine point of comparison is that both candidates appeal to voters who feel betrayed by party leaders and who perceive the country to be in a politically induced state of decline. Sanders's vision of a "political revolution" and Trump's promise to "make America great again" have very different content, but the popularity of both messages reflects a mentality that is sharply at odds with Obama's picture of an America on the rise.

A sermon for the choir

Presidents often hope that major public relations pushes will help to persuade their adversaries, and pundits often clamor for more of this form of leadership. The reality, however, is that persuading partisan adversaries through speeches is essentially impossible.

But aligning Democratic partisans around Obama's view is a more plausible goal, and, as we've seen, the dour mood extends well beyond the ranks of the GOP rank and file. Democratic loyalists are predisposed to finding Obama persuasive, and if they hear a clear message from the president that things are looking up in America they may well align around a sunnier vision.

If that's Obama's aim, then expect a State of the Union that's not only more upbeat than his past addressed but also a bit more ideologically hard-edged — more aimed at reminding Democrats (especially those tempted to feel the Bern) what team they're on than at performing reasonableness for the sake of conflicted centrists.